In the world of wine, fraud is a vintage pastime Bordeaux scandal is just the latest in a long line of tampering cases.

June 14, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,sun staff

Forget Monica Lewinsky. It's France that has the real scandale of 1998 on its hands.

Chateau Giscours, a prestigious Bordeaux estate, and two former winery employees were charged this month with making fraudulent wine from various forbidden ingredients. Wine professionals fear the alleged concoction could end up giving their entire industry a hangover.

"It just kills the whole wine industry. It just gives it a black mark," says Hillard Donner, who has sold fine wine at his family's Mills Wine & Spirit Mart in Annapolis for more than 50 years.

More than likely, though, the industry will survive. The history of fraud and fakery in winemaking dates to ancient times, with results ranging from fatal to favorable. Thirst, though, has always won out over caution.

In the most recent case, the allegations include charges that wood chips were improperly used to simulate the flavor imparted by oak barrels and that cheaper wine was blended into a 1995 vintage wine produced on the estate.

"There are things that are forbidden that seem to have been done," says Philippe Casteja, owner of several well-known French chateaux and president of the Conseil Interprofessionelle des Vins de Bordeaux.

The charges are the most serious to face prominent members of the Bordeaux wine trade since 1973, when the Cruse wine firm was found to have passed off simple table wine as genuine Bordeaux. That scandal, at a time when the Bordeaux market was at a historic high, destroyed Cruse and sent rising Bordeaux prices into a prolonged decline.

Now, with the prices of 1995 and 1996 vintages hitting record levels, members of the wine trade are waiting nervously to see whether history repeats itself.

Bordeaux industry leaders have moved to counter any impression that Giscours' alleged practices are widespread. "It is certainly one grower among 12,000," says Casteja.

The problem for Bordeaux is that Giscours, located in the famous wine village of Margaux, is one of the traditional nobility of Bordeaux - the 61 estates classified as "great growths" in 1855.

But Giscours is a somewhat threadbare aristocrat, beset by economic problems before its winemaking operation was acquired by a Dutch owner in 1994.

While the reputations of comparable estates have soared in recent years, Giscours has lingered in the middle of the pack - earning middling scores from such critics as Robert M. Parker Jr. of the Wine Advocate. Still, it has a loyal following in the United States, despite prices above $50. Parker, author of several books on Bordeaux, says the charges apparently do not involve the chateau's flagship wine, but a cheaper "second wine" called La Sirene de Giscours. The influential Parkton-based wine writer says that while Giscours' problems are unlikely to chill the red-hot Bordeaux market, the effect on its own reputation will be serious.

Unless vindicated, Giscours will apparently go down in history as part of a dishonorable tradition almost as old as civilization itself.

In ancient Rome, crooked dealers did a brisk trade in phony Falernian, the fabled white wine of its time, prompting the writer Pliny the Elder to complain that "not even our nobility enjoys wines that are genuine."

Other frauds have involved the adulteration of wine with foreign substances. Over the centuries, additives used to "improve" wine have included ox blood, lead, milk, mustard, ashes and nettles.

As recently as 1985, 16 people died in Italy when they drank wine tainted with methanol. That same year, Austria's wine export market was all but destroyed when hundreds of wines were found to have been sweetened with diethylene glycol, an antifreeze additive.

The fraud alleged at Chateau Giscours is innocuous by comparison. One, the use of wood chips, is illegal in Bordeaux but widely used in California and Australia to make inexpensive varietal wines - especially chardonnays.

One could argue that certain fraudulent practices benefit the consumer. For many years Burgundy wine producers used cheap but full-bodied wine from the south of France or North Africa to bolster the often thin red wines of their own region - making them far more drinkable.

Improvement or not, though, the practice is a violation of French law.

The U.S. wine industry has been relatively scandal-free in recent years. Christian Butzke, an oenologist at the University of California at Davis, said California's system for preventing wine fraud is about as strong as any in the world.

But with wine prices steadily climbing, the likelihood of fraud will increase, Butzke said.

For consumers, perhaps the best advice is that handed down in 1833 by the British writer Cyrus Redding: "The best test against adulterated wine is a perfect acquaintance with that which is good."

Pub Date: 6/14/98

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